The Martin Luther King memorial is the reminder our country needs


The statue at the Martin Luther King Jr memorial by the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. in August 2011. (Marvin Joseph)
August 22, 2011

Timed to the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, this week’s On Leadership roundtable explores King’s leadership legacy and where we stand today in fulfilling his vision for the nation—with opinion pieces by the Demoncratic National Committee’s Donna Brazile, Morehouse College President Robert M. Franklin, and Martin Davidson of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s reappearance in the nation's capital may be just what America needs now.

Today's leaders desperately need to learn and practice the lessons King has left us—among them the ability to speak truth to power, the capacity to appeal to the humanity and self-interest of your opponents instead of dehumanizing them, the discipline to balance confrontation with negotiation, and the strength to forgive and reconcile with former enemies. These are qualities in unfortunately short supply among current-day politicians, religious leaders, media commentators and ordinary citizens. 

It’s more than his leadership skills or practices that we need to rediscover, though. It’s King’s leadership virtues. He had a profound respect for all people and for their diverse cultures, beliefs and habits. He also had the willingness to sacrifice his personal comfort to advance the common good, the persistence not to give up when things weren’t going his way, and the courage to love others even when it was unpopular. 

For these reasons, the King memorial is a testament to the skills and virtues of ordinary American patriots who loved their country enough to sacrifice for it. His statue is a trophy for the nameless millions who contributed blood, sweat and tears to rehabilitate American democracy. It declares that their sacrifices have finally been acknowledged and their labors rewarded. More like the Statue of Liberty than most other Washington monuments, King's memorial is a beacon and a message to the world that equality and justice are worth paying the ultimate price. And, King's unusual posture—folded arms and fixed gaze—suggests that of a loving and impatient parent, both demanding and inviting us to take risks that lead to moral development.

Were our nation’s leaders to visit, listen and learn, I think that Dr. King would, for instance, challenge the Tea Party not to allow budget austerity to become a blunt instrument that harms innocent people whose dignity is already assaulted everyday by poverty. He would challenge black leaders and white leaders not to become subservient to race and class interests, but to instead remind their followers of the interdependence of all citizens. As he often said, “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools.” I believe that he would affirm Warren Buffett's recent reminder that those to whom much has been given (and yes, earned), much is required. 

The memorial will now become a permanent fixture in Washington's political landscape, and King can never again be ignored. His words are etched in the granite, he can never be silenced.

The world's citizens will beat a path to the "Stone of Hope." In reading his words, they will attain a better understanding of his moral genius; and in walking away, they will be wiser and, we can hope, more committed to King's priorities of eradicating poverty, racism and violence worldwide. If only we could somehow compel Congress, the Supreme Court and the president to regularly visit the monument together and discuss his message to them. Such field trips might change our national politics. 

King was a generous leader whose dream and moral vision included all of us. So, when we visit the memorial we should see ourselves there inside his heart. And, we should remember Walt Whitman's words: "I am large, I contain multitudes." But then, we should see those folded arms and also remember the challenge attributed to Rabbi Hillel. “The world is equally balanced between good and evil, our next act will tip the scale.”

The Reverend Dr. Robert M. Franklin is the president of Morehouse College, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from in 1948.

Read the full roundtable on Martin Luther King’s legacy

Donna Brazile: What Martin Luther King saw from the mountain top

Robert Franklin: MLK memorial is the reminder our country needs

Martin Davidson: Our perversion of King’s dream

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